Jim Miller, an advocate for older Americans, writes “Savvy Senior,” a weekly information column syndicated in more than 400 newspapers nationwide. Based in Norman, Oklahoma, he also offers a free senior e-news service at SavvySenior.org.
Taking care of your teeth these days can take a big bite out of your budget. This is especially true for the 108 million Americans who don’t have dental insurance and are stuck paying full out-of-pocket expenses every time they visit a dentist. But even many people who have dental coverage often end up paying a lot for what their insurance doesn’t cover.
There are a number of strategies, resources and services that can help you reduce your dental bills or maybe even get care for free. Of course, the most obvious way to reduce costs is to simply ask for a discount—many dentists will readily shave off 10% for any uninsured customers. And if you’re over age 55 or 60, it is wise to ask whether there is a senior discount program, which is quite common even though it’s not usually advertised.
Here are more ways to save…
There are various plans that provide members access to networks of dentists who have agreed to offer their services at discounted rates. You pay an annual membership fee—roughly $80 to $200 a year—in exchange for 10% to 60% discounts on cleanings, crowns, implants, root canals and other procedures from participating dentists. To locate a plan, go to DentalPlans.com (or call 888-632-5353), the biggest resource with more than 40 dental discount plans listed. You can search by zip code and get a breakdown of the discounts offered in your area.
Another discount option currently available only in the southern California area is Brighter. It provides free access to a network of dentists offering an average discount of 35% on services. Call 888-230-5305, or go to Brighter.com.
If you are a Medicare beneficiary, you already may know that original Medicare (Part A and Part B) and Medigap supplemental policies do not cover most dental care—but there are some Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans that do. Many of these plans, which are sold through private insurance companies, cover routine dental care along with vision care, hearing care and prescription drugs, in addition to all of your hospital and medical insurance. To find Medicare Advantage plans in your area that offer dental care, call 800-633-4227 or go to Medicare.gov/find-a-plan.
You can switch from original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan each year during the open-enrollment period, which is between October 15 and December 7. Or, if you are about to enroll in Medicare for the first time, you may want to consider a Medicare Advantage plan that covers dental.
To get dental care at a reduced price, find a college or university near you that has a dental school. Most of the 65 accredited dental schools in the US and Puerto Rico offer comprehensive care provided by dental students who are overseen by experienced, qualified teachers. You can expect to pay about half of what a traditional dentist would charge and still receive excellent, well-supervised care.
Or, if you want to get your teeth cleaned, you can check with local colleges that offer dental-hygiene programs. For training purposes, most of the 335 US programs provide supervised dental cleanings by their students for 50% to 75% less than you would pay at a dentist’s office.
To locate dental schools or dental-hygiene programs in your area, visit ADA.org/dentalschools.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs provides free dental care to certain veterans who have a service-connected dental condition or disability…and to former prisoners of war. To learn more about this benefit and the eligibility requirements, call 877-222-8387 or visit VA.gov/dental.
If you’re not eligible for its free dental care, the VA also is now offering a national VA Dental Insurance Program that gives you the option to buy dental insurance through Delta Dental and MetLife at a reduced cost. To be eligible, you must be a veteran enrolled in the VA health-care program or an individual enrolled in the VA’s Civilian Health and Medical Program. To find out more about these last two programs, including eligibility, call 877-222-8387 or visit VA.gov/dental.
If your income is low, there are various programs and services that provide dental care at a reduced rate or for free. Here’s where to look…
Medicaid & CHIP benefits: All states provide dental-care services to children covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but dental coverage for adults on Medicaid will vary by state. See Medicaid.gov for coverage and eligibility details.
State and local services: Some state and local programs as well as local clinics offer reduced-rate or free dental care to people with low incomes—generally below 200% of the federal poverty level. To find out what’s available in your area, call your state dental director for contact information or your state or local dental society.
HRSA health centers: Supported by the US Health Resources and Services Administration, there are nearly 1,300 health centers that operate more than 9,200 locations around the US that provide discounted or free health and dental care based on financial need. To find a center near you that provides dental care, call 877-464-4772 or visit FindAHealthCenter.HRSA.gov.
Free health clinics: There are around 1,200 nonprofit, privately funded, volunteer-based free clinics across the country that provide a range of medical, dental and pharmacy services to economically disadvantaged people. Call 703-647-7427, or go to NAFCClinics.org.
Dental Lifeline Network: This national humanitarian organization provides free dental care to the elderly and disabled people who can’t afford to pay. The program operates through a volunteer network of more than 15,000 dentists and 3,600 dental labs across the US. It also offers the Donated Orthodontic Services program in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia that enables low-income children to receive orthodontic treatment for a fee of $200. Call 888-471-6334, or go to DentalLifeline.org.
Remote Area Medical: This is a nonprofit, volunteer, charitable organization that provides free health, eye and dental care to people in need in certain areas of the US based on requests from local health departments and civic groups. The 2015 clinic schedule includes a total of 21 stops during the year in parts of Texas, Tennessee, California, Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky and Nevada. Call 865-579-1530, or go to RAMUSA.org.
Indian Health Service (IHS): This is an agency within the US Department of Health and Human Services that provides free dental care at more than 230 IHS dental clinics across the US to American Indians and Alaska Natives who are members of federally recognized Indian tribes. Visit IHS.gov.